Thursday, January 29, 2015

If all failures were so good

I am sick of hearing how meteorologists "blew" the blizzard forecast.  An offset by 20 miles is still pretty good.  Now and hindcasting is as easy as Monday morning quarterbacking.  Forecasting the exact locations of mesoscale (10-1000 km) rain and snow bands is extremely difficult.

As a mom of a school-aged child, I also appreciate the certainty of knowing whether schools will be closed or open a night in advance.  I don't want to spring last-minute surprises on my boss any more than I want last-minute surprises sprung on me.  Advance planning is good overall.

A false positive (overly cautious) forecast is not as severe as a false negative.  Fewer people hit the roads.  Fewer lives were lost.  People continued shopping, but just shifted the time or method.  The earth continued to spin around its axis while many took a snow day.

I spoke with a colleague about how a pretty good forecast came to be dubbed a failure.  Could we have seen a different forecast than the rest of the public?

No, it's just that we are used to seeing nuances and uncertainty in forecasts.  Maybe we meteorologists could have communicated it better.  Maybe the lay public could have listened better.

When I see spaghetti plots like this
NY Snow: NCEP ensemble forecast initiated 12Z Jan 25
or this
NY Snow: NCEP ensemble forecast initiated 12Z Jan 26
I think, hmmm. The 1-2 feet of snow projected 2-3 days out has been reduced to about 8-25" now that we are one day closer to the storm.  The forecast is trending down as we gather more information and get closer to storm time.

Prepare for the worst.  And be happy when it doesn't happen.

Off soapbox.

h/t Jeff Masters and Cliff Mass


  1. I agree with you - that being prepared for a storm that doesn't materialize as strongly as it could have is better than hoping it will pass you by. NYC still got almost a foot of snow, and the maintenance folks on the ground dealing with it were surely happy that they had some space to do so.

  2. OK, here's what bothers me. (And I admit it, I didn't pay much attention to the forecasts for this storm, but I am thinking of the "storm of the decade" that was predicted for the bay area recently.)

    My beef isn't with the meteorologists. My beef is with the media. They incite panic, concern, what-have-you by trying to make these things the giant news story. Seriously, the amount of news coverage we were given for this "storm of a decade" was ridiculous. And it was rain. One day of rain. No particularly high winds, and the rain was constant, but it was not a driving rain. There was no lightning or thunder, even.

    There was some flooding in flooding-prone areas, but even a few years ago that wouldn't have gotten the gigantic media focus that it got this time. There's just too much hype, and it's the media trying to get their day in the sun (so to speak). And they are causing widespread fear, rather than a watchful caution.

    1. That's a great point. AMS, the American Meteorological Society, analyzed media coverage of weather a few years ago. The AMS found that, in every news market, weather events were overhyped in the lead-ups. "Stay tuned for the latest update on the [insert superlative] [insert weather event].

      Then, after they've insinuated that fear in people's minds to keep them tuned in, the actual forecast is more nuanced and only slightly over-hyped compared to NWS.

      But, they've purposely instilled the fear to beef up ratings. At that point, people aren't listening any more to the actual news.

    2. Yes, exactly! I have no problems with the scientists and meteorologists. :)


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